It’s not uncommon for natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other such forces of nature to make news headlines. Ranking right up there are stories of tragedy, such as building and bridge collapses, car accidents, aircraft crashes, and other such unfortunate incidents where people are seriously injured, or lose their lives. In each case, the pictures of ruin, destruction, grief, and death leave us often times asking ourselves the question: why do these sorts of things happen?
In the Gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus is asked to address a couple of tragic situations that happened in the news of His day. What did He have to say about suffering, and how does He turn it into a lesson on repentance? What does a story about a fig tree have to do with disaster and tragedy in our world? What does this text have to do with the daily life of the Christian? We’re going to find out that they are very much connected, and it fits right into our Lenten season.
As the reading opens, Jesus is asked about a recent tragedy that had occurred in Galilee. The first verse of our text tells us that “there were some present who told (Jesus) about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the sacrifices.” (v.1) What had apparently happened was there were Jews from Galilee who had come to the temple in Jerusalem, and were offering their sacrifices at the altar in the temple, when Pilate had them killed by a legion of soldiers. Whatever his motive was, we don’t know, as there are not any other passages from the New Testament or from separate historical record that shed light on this event. To give you a modern day comparison, it would be similar if soldiers came into one of our churches and started shooting people as they came forward to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. Even with what little we know about this event, we do know that it’s a tragic, horrifying thing. It’s not something that happened every day. It’s especially viewed as despicable because Pilate, a representative of the hated Roman occupation, was the one behind such an act of violence in a place that was supposed to be safe from it. In telling Jesus about this, they have a presupposition behind it. They want to know what in the world these Galileans had done that would bring such a judgment on them? Popular belief in the 1st Century was that such tragic events were a divine punishment from God for some particular sin.
So Jesus responds: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; that unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He then goes on to illustrate His point by asking about another recent tragedy of the day that we only see recorded in this one account in Luke’s gospel. Apparently, a tower had collapsed in Siloam, killing 18 people. That incident probably wasn’t ordered to happen by a government official or anybody else, it was just one of those tragic things that happen from time to time like the interstate bridge collapse that happened in Minneapolis a couple of years ago. But Jesus is asking them “Because this tower fell on those 18 people, you think that they had some horrible sin that earned them such a punishment?”
The ultimate point Jesus is trying to make is this: these people who died in the temple or in the collapsed tower, or suffer from any tragedy in their lives didn’t do anything more horrible than you, because in the end, the wages of sin is death. We all face it! Some earlier or some later than others, but eventually your sin will catch up to you if you do not turn away from it.
What makes this text particularly timeless is that here we are, nearly 2000 years later, and we still have folks out there today who, when asking the question of why do bad things happen to people in our world, still try to explain it by saying it’s because they must have done something really sinful that God is punishing them for. A few years ago when an earthquake devastated Haiti, I recall hearing of a TV preacher, who made the comment that the reason Haiti was devastated by the earthquake because Haiti made a deal with the devil to kick the French out of their country, and that’s how the Haitians ended up with Vodoo, and the earthquake was a punishment from God for making such a deal with the devil, despite the fact there is a lot of good, Christian mission work being done by the Lutheran church in that country.
One of the reasons this line of thinking is so timeless is that it goes along with the ultimate belief of “I may be guilty of little sins, but I’m not as bad as THAT person over there!” That’s a lot more common on a smaller scale. We look at people who sin in ways that make the headlines, and we think to ourselves “now that is a sinful person who deserves to have something bad happen to them. But, since I’m doing okay by my own standard, nothing like that can ever happen to me.” What Jesus is trying to get across today is that no one is immune to the wages of sin. Everyone faces death sooner or later. It may come in a different way, shape, form, or time, but it’s coming. And when it does, everyone will face judgment for their sin, and for those who refuse to repent of it, the punishment isn’t going to be any fun. In fact, you might wish a tower fell on you or that you died at the hand of Pilate’s soldiers at the temple in comparison to what awaits.
So with this in mind, now we have to ask another question: what does Jesus mean when He calls us to repentance? The Greek word used for repentance literally means to make a complete change of mind. We’re not talking about a mere “get out of jail free” card you can use when you get caught, but otherwise do whatever it is you want. That’s what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel lesson for today, the need for us to recognize the sin in our lives, confess, it, receive His forgiveness, and then stay away from that sin that would threaten to destroy us and lead us away from our relationship with God and with each other.
To illustrate the need of repentance and its role in the Christian life, Jesus uses the parable of a fig tree. The point of the parable is this: fig trees are supposed to do one thing, produce figs. And in the parable, the tree was given an amount of time to be cared for and fertilized, but there would come a day of reckoning where either the fig tree produced fruit, or it was going to be cut down because it wasn’t producing fruit in this vineyard. In the parable, the unproductive tree represented the Jews who were not producing the fruit of faith and repentance. They had been given time to produce, and they didn’t, they refused to believe that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah, and instead of confessing their sin, repenting, and believing that the Messiah would die for their sin and they would amend their sinful lives, they kept on doing what they were doing, all the while pointing out things that were happening to others, thinking that they were just fine with God because something horrible didn’t happen to them. The owner of the vineyard is God the Father, the one who is looking for the fruit, in this case, the fruit of repentance. He was giving time for the fertilizer, that is, His Word, to be showered upon the trees, but there would come a day where fruit would be expected, or it faces judgment.
This is a timely parable for this penitential season of Lent, because historically, it is a time of fasting, prayer, and repentance as we ponder what our Savior, Jesus Christ, has done for us at the cross. In fact for centuries, the season of Lent was a time of Catechesis, or instruction, for adult converts into the Christian faith. They would spend this time in heavy study of the Scriptures, with the goal at the end of that period of confess their sinfulness, and their need of a Savior, and then, on the eve of Easter at the Easter Vigil, these adult converts would make a public confession of their faith and be baptized. The timing symbolized the fact that their sins had been atoned for by Christ’s death and that they were now being raised to new life with Christ as Christ was raised to life again on Easter morning.
And that is really the life of the Christian, a life of repentance. And our liturgical practice on Sunday morning, and throughout the week, helps to keep that right in front of us. We come here on Sunday morning, and we confess our sins. In doing so, we recognize that our sin will cut us off from God and the life He has to give if we remain in it. We then hear about what our Savior has done for us through His life, death, and resurrection. Leaving here as His forgiven people, we want to live our lives in repentance by avoiding the sin in our lives. It’s like being cured from a horrible disease. Once you’ve received the medicine and been cured, you don’t then go out and expose yourself to it again so that you can get sick. Fruits of repentance work the same way. Once we recognize a sin, recognize what it threatens to do to our lives, confess it for what it is, and receive Christ’s forgiveness through Word and Sacrament, we stay away from it so that it doesn’t threaten to devour us in the end.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many who profess to be Christians who think “all I have to do is come to church on Sunday morning, confess my sins, get my vitamin pill of forgiveness, and then go back to what I usually do because I can be forgiven of it anyway.” That’s not what repentance is about at all Are we truly sorry for our sins if we just treat the forgiveness Christ won for us at the cross in such a cheap, meaningless manner? Is that what God really expects of us? Well, look at the two examples from the beginning of our text. Do you think that those people expected to die that day, in that manner? No. The point Jesus is making here is, this can happen to anybody at any time. Nobody knows when their time is up. Repentance is a daily part of the Christian life because if you’re going around thinking that you don’t need to amend your lives, you have it wrong! Your time may well be running out. This is life or death stuff.
But for today, you and I have been given time, just as the fig tree was given time in the Gospel reading for this morning, to repent of our sins and trust in Jesus Christ for our forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. God doesn’t just zap people who don’t believe in Him. He preserves their lives for a time in this world so that they can hear His Word in the hopes that they will repent and be forgiven. In the Old Testament, He sent His prophets to warn the people of Israel to turn back from their sinful ways, and their false gods, and turn to Him in repentance and faith, trusting that He would deliver on His promise of a Messiah, before time ran out and judgment came. And too many times, it did. For us today, our Lord gives us time. Time to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those in our community who may not believe in Him. Time to show through our fruits of repentance and faith what Christ has done for us, the difference He makes in our lives, and the reason that we’re here in this community. That’s why we boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world to the people in our lives and in our communities, with the hope and the prayer that they will produce fruits of repentance and faith before the day of grace has ended.
Tragic things will happen in our world, reminders that our time is short and we live in a world that’s plagued with the inescapable reality of the wages of sin, death. As we are in the midst of our Lenten journey, let us be thankful that God gives us a time and season to repent of our sins, believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, and live in the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation that He has provided for us But let’s not stop there, let’s also go out and share that joy of repentance with the people in our community and the world. May God grant that for Jesus’ sake. Amen.